© 2018 Robert Osburn
Politically centrifugal forces— those that drive Americans from the moderate (not mushy) center to radical political extremes on the Left and Right —are winning the day in America because the Christian cultural consensus that once united them is long gone. And the elite-motivated effort to substitute a progressive culture is not only failing, but actually drives Americans farther apart.
Virtually every commentator and politician agrees with the polls: Politically-speaking, more Americans are either strongly conservative or strongly liberal. The huddle. In the middle is shrinking Thus, the partisan divide has grown dramaticallysince the Pew Research Forum first studied this phenomenon in 1994.
No one is cheering, because: 1) political agreement is more unlikely than ever, slowly seizing up the legislative meat grinder; 2) national policy jerks sharply from Right to Left (and back), depending upon the president in office; and 3) political debates are becoming shouting matches between political tribes whose views of reality are 180 degrees at odds.
But, this was predictable 50 years ago when left-wing student radicals led a cultural revolution to overthrow the Christian moral consensus that had existed since the 17thcentury, long before the nation’s founding. Exerting a culturally-potent centripetal counter-force—pulling people from political extremes and uniting them culturally—the Christian moral consensus meant that everyone knew the rules about how to live life, the boundaries for what was acceptable and unacceptable, and the consequences for violating those boundaries. Democrats and Republicans shared the same moral vision, more or less, and so even if their politics drove them to extremes, their cultural mindset (grounded in historic Christian faith) pulled them back to the middle.
Thus, prior to the 60s, Democrats might have favored greater government involvement in society, but always with the awareness that too much government involvement could be bad. And why? Because Christianity taught that humans are inherently sinful and thus prone to take public advantage for private gain.
Likewise, Republicans might have favored private markets as the central mechanism organizing economic activity. But, when a Christian ethic was normative, those same Republicans welcomed limited government regulation. The same inherent sinfulness causes people to seek monopolies and private economic interests that can effectively harm the larger society.
But, it’s not just that a Christian moral consensus tempered policymaking, the development of law, and the exercise of justice. There were also shared moral communities, called churches, where people of different political stripes could worship together before a God who demonstrated a sacrificial love that inspires unity when the political chips were down. That Democrat seated by the baptistry might be my political enemy, but, by God, he’s my brother!
Even if they did not share the same congregational life, then at least they shared neighborhoods where the (Christian-inspired) rules dictated behavior. You trusted your neighbors who might cast opposing ballots during elections with the keys to your house (“in case we’re out of town and you need an egg from our refrigerator”). Children played together, ate in each other’s homes, attended the same schools, secure that Kathy’s mom lived by the same moral template as Susan’s. Leave It to Beaver, widely reviled by the revolutionists, worked because Ward Cleaver’s sons played with boys whose parents innately agreed that boys must treat girls with respect, and deserved punishment if they did not.
Thirdly, not only was there a shared moral outlook and parish-defined communities, but there was also a common moral vocabulary. Shared vocabulary effectively bridges communities that might otherwise be at odds. “Marriage” meant the same thing to the Democrat and to the Republican until it began to be re-redefined in the 2000s by those promoting a progressive moral vision that now claims superiority.
What replaced the Christian moral consensus was, supposedly, multiculturalism—multiple vision of the good. In reality, the elite big three (academia, press, and Hollywood) have sown and cultivated a progressive morality grounded in the quest for human fulfillment. Not only is it incapable of uniting political enemies because it focuses on individual fulfillment at the expense of the broader society, but it simply has not succeeded as a consensus morality (and likely never will).
Consider how different the outcome of the American Civil Rights struggle of the 50s and 60s might have been if there was no shared moral vision that commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not pursue individual fulfillment. It is not an exaggeration to say that it would have failed had it appealed to a progressive morality that instead of cultivating moral courage, would have generated either a violent, wrenching revolution or the listlessness of the hyper-victimized. And there would have been no moral hero like Martin Luther King, Jr.
The problem then, is not that partisan politics divides. Political division is a sorting process that forces people to choose sides in the exercise of justice. The problem for the past 50 years has been the absence of a culturally-uniting force that restrains political divisiveness.
The Christian moral vision that was once universally shared in America was the centripetal force that moderated the centrifugal effect of politics. The progressive moral vision offered in its place has not only failed to unite, but actually has enhanced politics’ centrifugality.
Will Americans rise up to reject progressive morality, and renew its embrace of a Cross-shaped moral vision that diminishes political polarization because it teaches love for neighbor?
For further reflection: Religion and Cultural Friction: Are the Two Related?
I agree with your analysis, Bob, but I doubt Americans will rise up to reject an amoral secular view as long as it appears to represent the future.
Excellent analysis. I agree completely. The question I am wrestling with is: "How do we prepare the church to live in a post-Christian (even anti-Christian) nation?" Many church goers still live in their minds in an illusory world that once was where "going to church" was an honorable thing to do, and where one could count on a general respect for their faith. There is tremendous cultural lag between where many Christians are today in their thinking and where the world has gone and is going. We need to wake up to the fact that a new Pharoah has arisen who does not know Joseph.
The problem of cultural lag is very real, especially in the church, as you rightly note. My sense is that we need to resurrect the idea of the Christian public intellectual whose voice is respected, is broadcast regularly, and who has the capacity to mobilize Christians for action. But, that person also needs to be supplemented by a larger high-performing network of Christian leaders from many different sectors whose job is to work alongside the public intellectual and rapidly create implementable strategies that are passed along through para-church and church-based organizations. The network also needs to manage relationships with those who want to be allies and those who want to be opponents.